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Celebrating 20 years of Access to Higher Education

Speaker Key

DO=Derfel Owen
KD=Kath Dentith


DO: Hello, and welcome to the latest QAA podcast. I'm Derfel Owen and today I'm joined by Kath Dentith from the reviews group at QAA. And she's going to be talking to us about the Access to Higher Education work that we do, and this is part of our Spotlight on QAA series where we talk about some of our less well known activities. And this year we've been celebrating 20 years of the Access Recognition Scheme, and Kath has been working at QAA for 11 years leading our recognition scheme for Access to Higher Education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. So Kath, before we get started talking in detail about your day to day job, what is it that the recognition scheme actually recognises?
KD: Thanks Derfel, what it recognises, at the end of the day, are the courses themselves. So it's about recognising Access to HE courses, to establish that they are of a certain quality so as to make them eligible for funding.
DO: And approximately how many courses are we talking about?
KD: At the moment it’s just over 1,500 courses, and that’s using a definition of course which relates to a particular subject area in a particular college. So there are something in the region of 350 providers involved, most of them further education colleges. Each of those colleges delivers one or more Access course, so they will have for example, in any one college there may be an Access to nursing course, and an Access to Law, an Access to Teaching, Access to Humanities and so on. And that’s how we get to a position of about 350 providers and about 1,500 courses.
DO: And on those 1,500 courses, how many students are we talking about... How many students pass through?
KD: Well, what we do know for certain is that about 20,000 students a year are awarded the Access to HE certificate. Obviously more than that start the course, not everyone gets through to the end and of those that get through to the end, not all of them are successful in getting the full Access to HE certificate. But if we’re looking for a ball park figure, then 20,000 gives us that sense of the number of Access students who are getting the qualification, applying through UCAS to higher education.
DO: And what sort of students are we talking about here? I said a second ago a less well known activity for QAA, and it’s because this is a non-traditional route?
KD: Yes, that’s interesting really because as you said we’re celebrating 20 years' worth of Access to HE so in some ways it’s a very traditional qualification, rather more traditional than most that are currently on the scene, but there’s still the sense that it’s a traditional qualification now, but still with non-traditional students. In the sense that, these are... the Access courses are not intended for 18 year old school leavers, but rather for adults who are returning to education, who for all sorts of reasons, didn’t gain the kinds of qualifications required for university entry while they were at school, and then later reflect on that and decide that they actually would like to pursue that route. So, there may be all sorts of reasons why, in the first instance, they actually didn’t get the necessary qualification: whether they left school early for all sorts of reasons; whether they were a child of parents who moved around a lot; whether they had all sorts of difficulties that they may have encountered; or whether as is so often the case, I think anybody with teenage children will know, for whatever reason, they simply didn’t want to. And yet later on in life, think maybe they made a mistake and now... or indeed having made a sensible decision at 18, they’ve changed their decision now that they’re 23, 25, 34 whatever.
DO: And, if I was someone in my mid 20s or even older, considering going back into higher education, how would I actually find out about one of these courses?
KD: Well, I think very often for the person on the street, their first point is just approaching their local FE college, because many Access students, as we’ve said, are adults, so they often are constrained in where they can travel to in order to study, and so they're likely to go to their local college just to find more details from there about what’s available.
DO: And what will the students be expected to do on these courses, about how long do they last?
KD: Most of the courses are designed to be one year courses, and on that course they will be expected to do a combination of different kinds of study. Some of it will be the core or key skills in English and some Maths, and IT. And also a significant amount of something that will probably be called study skills. In addition to that is, of course, the academic subject areas which are relevant to the study that they want to go on... to progress to in higher education, so that will obviously vary according to that particular progression route. There's a combination of those two things: the core study skills area, and the specialist academic study.
DO: And do there tend to be links... strong links between the providers of these courses and the local universities?
KD: Yeah. The... some of them do have particular progression agreements worked out, but the way in which the Access scheme works is through an intermediary set of bodies who act as the awarding bodies for Access to HE.
DO: And those are... those bodies are largely regional based?
KD: They are... so there are 15 in England, and Wales; one for the whole of Wales, and 14 in the English regions.  And so... those bodies, to go back to your earlier question, are the ones that are... act as awarding bodies but they are also partnership organisations, critically. They act on behalf, both of the providing organisations (as I say most of those are in further education); and the receiving organisations, the higher education institutions.
DO: You're talking about the fact that actually these...  it may be non-traditional students who take these, but they’re not actually non-traditional qualifications. This scheme's been around since 1989, but that’s not when it started is it; it actually goes back much further?
KD: Indeed. I think that various people come up with different figures about this, but I think we’re talking at least the early 70s probably... when courses were first set up, by universities on the whole. So that they were feeder courses into particular university courses of various kinds. And it would seem, looking at the history of all of this, that it was predominantly... the kind of course which was intended to bring non-traditional entrants into the teaching profession. And so there was a particular targeting of kinds of people who weren’t normally included in the teaching profession, and so bringing back mature students, that was the start really of Access courses - but those courses, as I say, were designed as feeder courses into particular HE institutions, and over the period of time between the mid 1970s and late 1980s there was a growth around the country of different courses, but students were only able then to progress to that one particular institution and what happened was that it was clear that what was needed was a qualification which students could take to a different part of the country. And so the development of a national scheme which would give national recognition to those qualifications was an important development that happened at the end of the 1980s.
DO: So that was established in around 1989, and over time this became a responsibility of Quality Assurance Agency.  So how did that come about and what exactly is it that we do as an agency, in relation to these?
KD: Well there are two things that we do really; one is to do with directly reviewing mechanisms for quality assurance, and the other is about development.  So in a way within this area it reflects those two major areas of QAA's more general activity.  So we review the Access Validating Agencies, which are the awarding bodies.  We have a scheme by which we do that, so we check that they are implementing the sorts of procedures that are necessary to make sure that those-
DO: Those are the 15 regional bodies in England, and Wales?
KD: -indeed.  And in addition to that we do quite a lot of work now in development of the qualification itself, making requirements about the nature of that qualification to ensure its credibility in higher education, to ensure that the students who go through that experience have actually got a qualification that is meaningful and which is going to be accepted by higher education.
DO: Kath, thank you very much for giving up your time.
KD: Thank you.

DO: For more information about this you can visit the Access website, which is or QAA's website which is

End of Recording.